Latin Leaders Behaving Badly

The buildup to this weekend’s sixthSummit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, has been rife with drama.Ecuador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa, announced that he will skip the 34-country conferencebecause it excludes Cuba, which does not belong to the Organization of AmericanStates (membership requirement: democracy). The presidents of El Salvador,Honduras, and Nicaragua sparred publicly with the president of Guatemala over a drug legalization proposal. And not to be outdone, Cuba’s Fidel Castro ridiculed U.S. President Barack Obama’s reported plan towear a guayabera — a light tropical dress shirt originating in Cuba — at thesummit.

Yet for all the hoopla, the summitwill likely produce little of substance. There are already reports thatofficials will sidestep hot-button issues such as drug policy and the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. In fact, this is inkeeping with the way these gatherings typically play out in Latin America, aland in which a dizzying array of acronymed intergovernmental organizations host an endless but ultimately empty parade of summits.

Sure, there have been somesuccesses. The inaugural Summit of the Americas in 1994 marked a high point of goodwill between the United Statesand Latin American countries (Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his like-mindedallies had yet to assume power) and launched a proposal — never realized — for a free-tradebloc stretching from “Alaska to Argentina.” The third Summit of theAmericas in 2001 produced the Inter-AmericanDemocratic Charter, which emphasized the importance of democraticinstitutions in the Americas.

But the summits are more oftenremembered for temper tantrums and mischievous antics by government leaders –with Chávez in particular at the center of many of the tempests. If past LatinAmerican summits are any guide, we should expect some serious sparks to fly inCartagena. Here are some of the least auspicious moments from summits past.


What: Ibero-American Summit

When: 2011

Where: Asunción, Paraguay

Meltdown: The annual gathering of leaders from the Spanish- andPortuguese-speaking nations of Europe and the Americas was marred by theabsence of several heads of state, including Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff andArgentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who claimed they had to prepare foran upcoming — and implicitly more important — G-20 summit in France.

The poor attendance — and surelythe optics of their king and prime minister mingling with lower level officials– enraged Spanish news outlets, which deemed the summit ademoralizing failure. “The summit has become redundant for Latin Americanpowers, who already have their own voice in other, more global forums,” La Voz de Galicia lamented.

Not only that, but Correa, whobooted a World Bank representative from the country in 2007 after theorganization withheld an $100 million loan, stormed out of a speech by a World Bank official. “Inan Ibero-American forum, why do I have to listen to lectures from the WorldBank vice president, who openly blackmailed my country?” he asked,interrupting her presentation. Bolivia’s Evo Morales stuck it to Spain shortlyafter the summit, suggesting that the forum was in its death throes and thatLatin American countries shouldn’t be “held accountable every year to theking” of Spain.



What: Rio Group Summit

When: 2010

Where: Cancún, Mexico

Meltdown: This summit was supposed to produce yet another intergovernmental groupthat would exclude Canada and the United States and promote Latin Americanunity. But regional harmony was not in the cards. Chávez and then-ColombianPresident Álvaro Uribe — already at odds over a U.S.-Colombian militaryagreement and alleged Venezuelan support for Colombian guerrillas — clashed atlunch, with Uribe complaining about a Venezuelan trade embargo on Colombia andChávez accusing Uribe of trying to assassinate him. The conversation only got worseas Cuba’s Raúl Castro and Mexico’s Felipe Calderón rushed to intervene:

Uribe: Be a man!… You’re brave speaking at a distance, but a
coward when it comes to talking face to face.

Chávez: Go to hell!

“I think that if the tablehadn’t been there as an obstacle, and our friends weren’t sitting right there,that President Uribe physically would’ve attacked me,” Chávez later reflected. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable provided more color on theincident, noting that Venezuelan security officials had tussled with Mexicansecurity guards in an effort to assist Chávez, and that the summit as awhole was “the worst expression of Banana Republic discourse.”



What: Summit of the Americas

When: 2009

Where: Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Meltdown: Is there such a thing as an underhanded gift? If so, that’swhat Chávez gave Obama when he presented him with Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, or “The OpenVeins of Latin America,” during their first meeting after Obama’selection. The book, which, within days of the exchange, became abestseller, criticizes the long history of European and U.S. meddlingin the region. Chávez’s inscription in the Spanish-language copy? “ForObama, with affection.” (The goodwill didn’t last long.)

Later in the summit, Daniel Ortegaexpressed his disapproval of the United States more directly. The Nicaraguanpresident embarked on a 52-minute rant about American imperialism and”Yankee troops,” though he conceded that Obama was only a few monthsold during the Bay of Pigs invasion. “I’m very grateful that PresidentOrtega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three monthsold,” Obama later joked.

Here’s some raw video of Chávez’sbook stunt:




What: Rio Group Summit

When: 2008

Where: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Meltdown: We’ve already seen that Chávez, Correa, and Uribe can besomewhat volatile. Now imagine putting them all in the same room and askingthem to shake hands and make up over a brewing border crisis. When the South American leaders metat this summit following a Colombian military attack on rebels camped out inEcuador, a televised debate grew so rancorous that Correa walked out of thesession for what an aide said was a bathroom break. When he returned, he had a message forUribe. “Your insolence is doing more damage to the Ecuadorean people thanyour murderous bombs,” he proclaimed.

There were other theatrics (Uribebrandished documents that he claimed established links between Correa and therebels, while Chávez trotted out the mother of the rebels’ most prominenthostage, Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, to confront Uribe), but in theend the three leaders shook hands and resolved the dispute — sort of. Checkout the steely look Correa gives Uribe as they shake hands (beginning at 0:25):



What: Ibero-American Summit

When: 2007

Where: Santiago, Chile

Meltdown: This was yetanother summit in which attendees seemed to have not gotten the memo about thefeel-good theme — in this case, “social cohesion.” As Chávez repeatedly interruptedthen-Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and called formerSpanish Prime Minister José María Aznar a “fascist” who was lesshuman than a snake, Spain’s King Juan Carlos lost his nerve. “Why don’tyou shut up?” he fumed — in an outburst that quickly inspired ringtones, brandedT-shirts, and imaginative headlines such as “Kingof Spain v King of Spin.”

Zapatero proceeded to issue arousing call for decorum, only for Nicaragua’s Ortega to jump in and defendChávez — at which point the exasperated king stormed out of the room. Thesummit also featured a war of words between Argentina and Uruguay over a papermill.

Here’s a clip of the heated exchangebetween Chávez and the king:

AFP/Getty Images


What: Summit of the Americas

When: 2005

Where: Mar del Plata, Argentina

Meltdown: Chávez never minced words when it came to George W. Bush,once telling the United Nations that Bush was the”devil” and that the “the smell of sulfur” still lingeredafter the U.S. president’s General Assembly address. A year earlier, at aregional gathering in Mar del Plata, the Venezuelan strongman helped engineerthe defeat of a U.S.-supported free trade zone for the Americas and rallied asoccer stadium packed with 25,000 people against U.S. imperialism in an alternative”people’s summit.”

“One by one, Bush’s puppetshave fallen” in Latin America,” Chávez told the crowd, in a speech that lasted more than two hours. Bush, for his part, promisedto be “polite” if he ran into Chávez. But just check out Bush’sexpression (not to mention Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s) above as helistened to Chávez speak during the summit’s first session. When the U.S.president left Argentina before the end of the conference, Chávez declaredvictory. “The man went away wounded,” he crowed. “You could seedefeat on his face.”

You can see footage of Chávez’saddress to the people’s summit in this clip from his weekly television show, AlóPresidente (beginning at 4:30):

With a cancer-stricken Chávezexpected to make only a brief appearance at this year’s Summit of the Americas –and the fiery Rafael Correa boycotting it altogether — the upcoming gatheringmay be relatively subdued. But don’t underestimate the Venezuelan president’sability to whip up controversy in a matter of hours.



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